Bob Dylan’s Julius and Ethel: the accuracy of the story is not the point.

By Tony Attwood

Some of the most amusing moments in Clinton Heylin’s monumental two volume review of Bob Dylan’s recording sessions comes with his criticism that Dylan has got his facts wrong and that his lyrics are trite, when writing about contemporary characters.   George Jackson, Lenny Bruce, William Zanzinger, and in this case the Rosenburgs in “Julius and Ethel”.

What Heylin never seems to get is that poetry and songs are not there to tell historical facts and accurate tales.  They exist, when they deal with real life events, to portray what they see as the essence of the subject matter, within poetic form.   Complaining about the accuracy is rather like comparing a portrait painting with a photograph – just because the painting exaggerates the nose or distinguishes the chin, that doesn’t make it inferior to the photo or a bad picture.  It is a different art form, raised to make different points.

The historical ballads celebrating past events always exaggerated, that is what the form does.  This is how, for example, the legend of Robin Hood came about.  Yes of course there is a city called Nottingham, and yes it has a castle, and yes there is Sherwood Forest (they are all actually not too far from where I live) but if you are writing a song about the place or the people or the events, there really is no reason why it should be accurate.  If you want an accurate description of what happened you go and get a history book.

So it is with this tale of the Rosenburgs who were alleged to have given US atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.   To be offended because the story portrayed by Dylan is inaccurate misses the point that he is not trying to be accurate.

The song was recorded during the Infidels sessions, but for some reason it is not listed on the official Bob Dylan side.    Mark Knopfler plays the guitar and everyone seems to have a jolly time.   It even has a line that lots of people like to quote: “As long as you didn’t say nothing you could say anything”.

I’m not that au fait with American history, but I will try and do a very short summary of the Rosenburgs.  I believe they were members of the American Communist Party and perceived the Soviet Union as living up to its socialist ideals of equality.  Being accused of giving secrets to the enemy they were tried for treason and executed in 1953.   Arguments continue as to whether the information given by Julius Rosenberg to the Soviet Union was vital in allowing them to build an atomic bomb, although I think it is accepted that he gave some information.  The argument is over whether Ethel did the same, or was just at her husband’s side (rather than being active in the plot) and was used by the American state to encourage her husband to admit what had happened.

There appears to be a lot of people making the point about Ethel that she was simply guilty only by association.

The arrest of the Rosenbergs was part of the arrest pattern after British physicist Klaus Fuchs was picked up again for passing on secrets.   Other members of the circle of conspirators pleaded guilty, but Julius did not.  The couple were the first spies ever executed by order of the U.S. civil court.

As for the composition – it came at a strange time for Dylan if we look at the chronology

Three songs all set out as possible inclusions for the album, all rejected in different ways.  Tell Me, is (for me at least if no one else) a fairly trivial piece, and the indications are that Dylan wrote it, worked on it, recorded it and abandoned it all within the space of a day.   Foot of Pride is completely different, clearly phenomenally important to Dylan as he recorded it over and over again in many different ways trying to make it work to his satisfaction but without ever getting the version he wanted.  This one is a historical tale told as a piece of rollocking rock and roll.

What’s interesting in this sequence is just how different each song is.  Tell Me is a song worrying about whether love is lost or not; it just seems rather trivial to me.  Foot of Pride considers man’s inherent inhumanity and moves amidst very deep waters, while Julius and Ethel takes a historical event and gives Dylan’s own view on it.  Tell Me is fluff, Foot of Pride is deep, moving, and sounds like the end of an album to me – at least on the version we have on record.    Julius is a great rock and roll song, although Heylin is utterly and totally dismissive of it but he quite likes Tell Me.  Ah well.

Now that they are gone, you know, the truth it can be told;
They were sacrificial lambs in the market place sold —
Julius and Ethel, Julius and Ethel.

Now that they are gone, you know, the truth it can come out;
They were never proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt —
Julius and Ethel, Julius and Ethel.

The people said they were guilty at the time;
Some even said there hadn’t a-been any crime —
Julius and Ethel, Julius and Ethel.

People look upon this couple with contempt and doubt,
But they loved each other right up to the time they checked out
Julius and Ethel, Julius and Ethel.

Eisenhower was president, Senator Joe was king;
Long as you didn’t say nothing you could say anything —
Julius and Ethel, Julius and Ethel.

Now some they blamed the system, some they blamed the man;
Now that it is over, no one knows how it began —
Julius and Ethel, Julius and Ethel.

Every kingdom got to fall, even the Third Reich;
Man can do what he pleases but not for as long as he like —
Julius and Ethel, Julius and Ethel.

Well, they say they gave the secrets of the atom bomb away;
Like no one else could think of it, it wouldn’t be here today —
Julius and Ethel, Julius and Ethel.

Someone says the fifties was the age of great romance;
I say that’s just a lie, it was when fear had you in a trance —
Julius and Ethel, Julius and Ethel.

As I say, I think it’s a great rollocking song, and a shame it didn’t get further than the demo.  And a shame that critics want to comment on the exactitude of the lyrics.  You can just imagine these people who complain about accuracy deciding that Shakespeare’s Richard III is actually a rubbish piece of writing because it turns out Richard III was not a hunchback – Shakespeare just made that up.

Thank goodness no publisher has ever let Heylin loose on the bard.

Someone says the fifties was the age of great romance;
I say that’s just a lie, it was when fear had you in a trance

Great lines.

The Discussion Group

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The Chronology Files

These files put Dylan’s work in the order written.  You can link to the files here

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  1. The Rosenbergs are buried in the same cemetery as my relative so we visit their graves every year or so. The Rosenbergs are the only persons convicted of espionage in the USA who were executed. Many believe they were executed only because they were Jews. That, and the fact they were betrayed by Ethel’s brother who was the main spy and never turned on each other make for a hell of a love story. Great song.

  2. It’s always important to be accurate.
    The Rosenbergs were not convicted nor tried for treason. They were convicted of conspiracy which requires far less evidence.

    The Lonsome Death of Hattie Carroll was based on a very early New York Times article. The correct name is William ZantZinger (left incorrect on the song on purpose). The reality is that the cane thrown by William ZantZinger did not hit Hattie Carroll and she died of a stroke.

  3. To which one might reply, there are times when the overall point is more important than the accuracy of each detail. Or indeed that if correcting, it is always important to provide evidence.

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